Though this part of the city largely escaped the worst of Hurricane Katrina (the church’s sanctuary was badly damaged but has been restored), this congregation has experienced a rebirth in the wake of the storm because of the sense of mission the devastation awakened. In the weeks following the hurricane, the congregation mobilized its membership and resources; it assembled, coordinated, and housed volunteers from around the country to rebuild homes and indeed whole neighborhoods ravaged by Katrina.
The vitality of the church is evident in its worship and preaching, as well as in programs of community service. As the leadership of the church reflected on the church’s future mission in our leadership retreat, asking what might be the next steps the congregation needs to take, some wondered aloud what it would mean for them to re-envision their whole mission program yet again. Beyond the immediate goal of building homes and neighborhoods, what would it mean to allow their on-going mission work to afford also an intentional educational opportunity for themselves and for others? Members of congregations would come to their city not only to rebuild structures and neighborhoods, but to gain new and deeper understandings of Christian mission that might transform the lives of their congregations and communities back home. St. Charles Avenue would become a mission-education center, as well as a coordinator of mission itself.
The conversations over the course of these two days were lively and animated. In closing my portion of the retreat I described four beatitudes that had been taking shape in my mind as I listened to them discuss their mission past, present, and future. These beatitudes may be worthwhile for all of us to remember as we continue to rethink, adapt, and transform the ministries of our own congregations.
Bless dissent. In the very first session of the retreat a theme emerged: No single one of us knows where our church needs to go next, but together we will. In order to discover the shape of our future mission we must bless dissent. The church is the Body of Christ, St. Paul tells us, and a body has many organs, each with its own distinctive functions. However, not only does a heart have a different function from a foot, it has a whole different perspective on the body and the world the body inhabits. Variety of perspective isn’t always pretty, but differences need not lead to divisions. We must learn to bless our differences, even (maybe especially) our dissent, because we simply do not know where the key insights are coming from that will transform us, and no one of us has the understanding we need to find our way.
Bless failure. Samuel Becket once wrote a line of sheer poetry that also represents a fundamental insight into human maturity and good leadership. “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better,” Becket wrote. Notice: there are no question marks in this collection of six short sentences. The hinge on which maturity and health turn is in that third small sentence, with its gracious shrug of the shoulders. “No matter.” It transforms the fact of life (We try. We fail.), making possible the resolute and marvelous closing sentence, “Fail better.” The education we all need waits for us in our failures.
Bless story. Someone once observed, “Do you know why I believe that ideas can change the world? Because nothing else ever has.” I love this statement because I love ideas, the bigger the better; and the statement is almost true. But there are times when good ideas, even great ideas, don’t win the day. When great ideas don’t win, I’ve noticed that the thing that beat them was a story (though some of the stories weren’t even true). The power of stories, of legends, myths, fables and fairy tales is the greatest power for transformation known to humanity. The late Don Hewitt, the creator of the enormously successful television news magazine, “Sixty Minutes,” credited that program’s durability to the fact that they always answered a basic human request: “Tell me a story.” A church needs to cast its big ideas (including its mission) in stories.
Bless blessing. The power to bless is ultimately the greatest power the church possesses. We live in a culture of cursing. Cable television and talk radio are driven by the power to curse. And if we, as church, simply conform to the mold of this age, cursing our way through our culture, we will have failed to live up to the call of the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ, who came into this world that we might have life and have it in abundance. The curse boasts that its power is the only real power on earth. But, as the Bible reminds us again and again, the end of the curse’s power is always a grave, and the power to bless raises us to new life. The author of the original beatitudes chose to end his list with this one, reminding us to “rejoice and be glad.” After all, it’s when we bless that people notice a family resemblance between us and the God who created us.
MICHAEL JINKINS is dean and professor of pastoral theology at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Austin, Texas.